A gathering of spirits


This column originally appeared in April, 1998.

As we headed home, in 1998, from that surprising region of glaciers, waterfalls, forest and sea, starry nights and long, long days that comprise Alaska, we made a final stop in Sitka — for one more surprise.

After spending a Saturday walking the town, traversing old streets and long docks, exploring cemeteries, savoring the delightful flavors of the mixed cultures that make this old Russian-American town unique, we left our hotel in search of supper. A sign in front of St. Michael Lutheran and All Angels Russian Orthodox Cathedral, the crown jewel of an otherwise unexceptional architectural scene, said Vespers would be sung at 6:30.

Now Dave and I frequent Vespers in European churches. Our expectation was of some hymns, perhaps a choral liturgy, prayers, a brief sermon. Such a quiet half hour had often provided a reflective close to our day.

Not this time. We were two of a congregation of six. A chorus and cantor added another six or seven participants. A priest and a deacon completed the assembly.

The cathedral was tiny and the sanctuary somewhat “in the round.” For nearly an hour we stood, conspicuous outsiders, as the priest chanted and the cantor and chorus responded — over and over and over again.

The attire of priest, deacon, and altar were sumptuous. Incense filled the air as the late afternoon sun poured a blessing through stained glass. Surely, we thought, there would be a sermon or something we could understand and participate in, if only by our attentiveness. But the singing alternated from English to Russian to Tlingit, the local Indian dialect, and we were clueless. At last, we could stand no longer and slipped back out to the street as unobtrusively as possible, considering that we were one-third of the congregation.

Over dinner we shook our heads and laughed a little as we wondered whether Vespers would be over when we walked back to our hotel.

The visit to the Russian Cathedral, an historic landmark with its white exterior and onion dome, was one of two reasons we had opted to spend a weekend in Sitka. The other was to attend Sunday services at Sitka Lutheran Church, called the oldest Lutheran congregation on the West Coast.

Princess Maksoutoff, a Lutheran of English and German lineage, agreed to accompany her husband, the last Governor of Russian Alaska, if he built a church for her when she arrived in New Archangel, as the old Russian capital was called then. The church was established, and the little parish has flourished since, despite two catastrophic fires, one of which also destroyed its neighbor, St. Michael’s.

But neither of these worship services moved me — as unusual as one was and as comfortable as the other — nearly so much as another that took place on that Saturday evening.

Dave returned to the hotel; I wanted to remain out in the slanting light of sunset, so I walked some more — until I heard chanting again.

But this was different.

I followed the sound to the open door of an obviously new concrete building, where a sign said All Welcome. As I slipped inside, I could see that this was a modern version of an Indian tribal lodge. Broad concrete steps with polished plank seats formed a square that descended to a huge, unlighted fire pit, above which the roof was open. At the far side of the building, dancers were bowing to the applause of perhaps 40 persons scattered about the seats. Most in the audience were Tlingits, the native people of southeastern Alaska; only a handful appeared to be tourists.

There was an announcement that they’d take a break and return, and I decided it looked interesting enough to stay.

The second part of the evening’s program, however, was not entertainment, as the earlier portion apparently had been. Instead, it was a healing service. At first, I admit, I was disappointed, but as the music and testimonies began to build, I found myself deeply moved.

Anyone desiring healing — and it was pretty clear that alcoholism and addiction were the unnamed illnesses — was invited to come to the “stage.” One by one, people made their way forward. Old and young, men, women, youth, each was welcomed literally into the open arms of the tribal elders already in place.

The Tlingit nation is divided into Raven and Eagle tribes, and an elder from each stood holding a bright red blanket decorated with black and white buttons sewn in an intricate stylized Indian design. They called it a healing blanket, and as each supplicant came to the stage, the elders walked the blanket around him until he was wrapped in it. The woman leading the service reminded participants that those members of the tribe who enfolded each troubled person were also surrounded by the spirits of their ancestors, closing in and likewise washing the suffering with love and healing energy.

Prayers were repeated, a few sobbed, and a woman softly strumming a guitar sang a mixture of music. Some of it was old-timey Protestant favorites like The Old Rugged Cross, some were Tlingit chants, some sounded to me like folk music.

Young people gently invited everyone present to participate, and several other visitors accepted. I did not, but I did accept a simple cup of water poured from a clear plastic bottle. Water is sacramental.

Let me say this: This service of healing was absolutely Christian. The fact that Tlingit traditions and beliefs were woven into the Christian message — or was it the other way around? — took nothing away from either conviction.

I have no idea how “successful” the healing was, how well and truly relieved of their burdens these people were, but I don’t think anyone who was there would have questioned the genuineness of those involved, or doubted that this was a community of faith and mutual uplifting.

I know my heart was comforted and my step lighter when I walked, awed, into the twilight.

[Sallie Satterthwaite of Peachtree City has been writing for The Citizen since our first issue Feb. 10, 1993. Before that she had served as a city councilwoman and as a volunteer emergency medical technician. She is the only columnist we know who has a fire station named for her. Her email is SallieS@Juno.com.]